2017-03-07 / Opinion

Reckless Regard for Public Education

BY BRENDA CLOUGH
Guest Column

Among other questionable proposals in his budget, Governor LePage has proposed eliminating state reimbursement for what is referred to in local budget documents as System Administration education costs. Julie Henze, Brunswick’s Finance Director, reports that this cost shift of $1.1 million dollars to our local property taxes would be equivalent to increasing our local property taxes by 2 percent. It also would be setting into motion a drastic reshaping of public education in Maine.

In place of these eliminated System Administration reimbursements, the state would provide funds for what is being called “regional education service agencies” (ESAs) that schools can contract with for administrative services. Do we know how much the state will allocate to Brunswick for this function? Currently, there are no ESAs in Maine. There are current collaborative efforts between schools who share costs where feasible. How will school districts contract with an ESA entity that does not exist? Do the people of Maine even want to give up local control of our schools? The Maine Department of Education should not serve the function of an ESA — the attached strings to Gov. LePage are too taut. For most of the governor’s tenure there has been no permanent leader of this department of state government. Remember when he declared that he would appoint himself to this position and be the governor AND the Commissioner of Education? He only recently has been able to convince someone to assume this position “‘permanently.”

I have previously written in my blog about the “Blue Ribbon Commission” that the Maine legislature commissioned to study and propose recommendations that would stabilize education funding in Maine and improve student achievement. This commission has met during the last year and projects to have a completed set of recommendations for the legislature next year.

One of the sessions of this group was dedicated to learning about New York state’s Boards of Cooperative Educational Services (BOCES) which provide shared educational services to school districts across the state of New York. Recall Gov. LePage’s historical rants during the beginning of his first term in office in which he threatened to get rid of, in any way he could, superintendents, local school boards, and the teachers union who he perceived as getting in his way of accomplishing his goals. Having a Maine entity such as an ESA would effectively remove superintendents and local school boards from overseeing local school departments. Local control of schools would soon disappear. Superintendents in New York are hired by the BOCES, but only after the approval of the State Commissioner of Education. They work half time for local issues and half time carrying out state initiatives under the direction of the BOCES and State Commissioner of Education. When a superintendent leaves his/her job (or is fired for not achieving state political initiatives?), the State Commissioner ‘studies’ the local school unit(s) the superintendent supervised and determines if the local unit(s) still require the services of a superintendent or whether the unit can be combined with another BOCES unit.

This process has usually led to further consolidation with other BOCES units, resulting in decreasing local control and increasing state control. Doesn’t this sound too political to you? Political interference in education has already significantly destabilized our public education system. You might ask, “Has a New York BOCES system achieved significant cost savings and increased student achievement in New York?” At one of the Maine Blue Ribbon Commission meetings, a BOCES representative stated that had not been studied. A look at the www.data.nysed.gov website shows similar patterns of student achievement as here in Maine, ie. students from low income/disadvantaged backgrounds show lower levels of achievement; students from nonwhite cultural backgrounds show lower levels of achievement (except Asian/native Hawaiian/other Pacific Islanders students); and similar graduation rates that follow the same pattern as Maine’s graduation rate.

Let us recall that Maine’s student achievement level is higher than our nation’s average. Our dilemma is the achievement gap in students who come from low income, disadvantaged backgrounds, and/or have special education needs. Our primary Maine problem is children/families living in poverty. The number of families living in poverty is increasing in Maine. This means that the number of children in schools with social and achievement gaps is increasing. Schools alone can’t solve this poverty problem, Mr. Governor. Social stratification is directly affected by government policy. We have seen our state and federal government policy leaning toward favoring business and those with extreme wealth. This further exacerbates social stratification and the issues it brings. Governor LePage boasts that his actions have created a Maine rainy day fund with surpluses in the millions and another fund in the billions. And how has he accomplished this? By removing the very people who are living in and near the poverty level from the support services they need, which pushes them further into poverty; and by shifting costs to local communities which has resulted in fewer services and/or higher property taxes.

Gov. LePage has also proposed a statewide teacher’s contract. The only way a statewide contract MIGHT work is if there was a centralized body which could negotiate and support it, but under whose authority? This is just a ruse to weaken the teacher’s union. It is his way of trying to exert authoritarian control. His actions to date related to all unions within the state have been attempts to ‘bust the unions’. Unions offer needed checks and balances against CEOs who have reckless regard for workers’ rights. Governor LePage’s past actions and shameful behavior have shown that he disregards workers’ rights to a safe and welcoming workplace.

For his proposed ESAs to (perhaps) work, they must be fully functioning NOW. This is fundamental. Local school budgets are being developed NOW. Fiscal year 2018 begins July 1, 2017. That is only 4 months away. To have regional ESAs fully functioning by then is ludicrous. The use of Maine ESAs has been described as ‘voluntary regionalization’ as compared to the forced regionalization that occurred across Maine during the Baldacci administration. That forced regionalization did not result in predicted cost savings. It is naïve, at best, to think this type of ‘voluntary’ regionalization/collaboration can be functional within months. It is disingenuous because cost sharing already occurs between schools. Regional special education programs already exist. There may be other cost sharing opportunities, but there are barriers that must be removed first.

In 2014, Gov. LePage gave his cabinet level political appointees and other top level managers a raise, saying they were being underpaid and a pay raise was necessary to attract talented professionals. The difficulty he encountered filling his cabinet and upper management positions was noticeable. Each of these managers now earn $127,878 a year. The only exception was the interim Department of Education commissioner. Why does he criticize the fact that superintendents are overpaid when he, as a ‘CEO’ recognizes that salaries/benefits and a welcoming work environment need to reasonably compensate people? And why did he single out the Department of Education to not receive the raise? Regardless of where and what the job is, professionals, superintendents included, deserve a professional salary and to be treated with professional courtesy rather than derision.

His budget proposal is just another way for him to continue his rant against superintendents and local school boards. Another attempt to ‘bust the union’. Let’s tell him, “No, thank you. We value public education.”

Brenda Clough lives in Brunswick.

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